STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

What's "people-first" language – and what does it have to do with foster care?

I recently went to a gathering intended for kids who had spent time in the foster care system. There were plenty of young people at the gathering who are still in that system.

Brittany Bartkowiak was one of the young people who spoke to the entire group. Bartkowiak recently graduated from college, and because she is one of only around 5% of kids who've spent time in foster care and have made it to that milestone,that was the focus of her talk. But toward the end of her time on stage, she mentioned she was tired of the phrase "foster kid" and the many derivations of that phrase people use to describe people like her.

Bartkowiak said she'd rather hear herself talked about as somebody who "has experienced foster care." That way, she says, it sounds like she's also had other experiences – that foster care isn't the only thing noteworthy about her.

Those words were answered by a lot of polite, but very loud applause from the around 200 people in the room.

Bartkowiak was taking a page out of the disability rights movements playbook where a push to use this kind of "people-first" language originated. Many in the disability community think there's a big difference between saying somebody is "wheelchair bound" and saying somebody "uses a wheelchair." The first reference may evoke an image of dependency. In the second, the person could be seen as more active. 

Some might think people-first language is window dressing or an excess of political correctness. But as journalists, we obviously believe in the power of words. So from now on we'll start using that phrase, "experienced foster care" or something like it to describe an experience that over 13,000 kids in Michigan are facing right now. We don't believe time in foster care is the only interesting or important thing about them. We want to make sure we don't sound that way.